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The Amistad Court Case

Actively read all of the following information, and then complete the assignments on the final page.

The Amistad Court Case was one of the first major rulings in the United States against slavery. This incident also brought understanding to Americans how slaves were being treated.

Slavery is when someone is forced to do work without having a choice. Slavery has existed for thousands of years and it still goes on today. The Amistad Incident involved the Triangular Trade.

The Triangular Trade was when America, Africa, and Europe traded products with each other. People taken from Africa became slaves while African countries received goods.

In 1839, Jose Ruiz, a wealthy, Spanish, plantation owner, owned the 'La Amistad' schooner. He bought fifty-three Africans in Cuba.

Jose and his crew were mean to the slaves. The slaves did not receive much food and water. The crew beat and threatened to kill these Africans.

Sengbe Pieh, who was a slave, had enough. He led a group that took over the ship. They defeated the crew and killed Ruiz. Sengbe controlled La Amistad. He made the remaining sailors take the ship back to Africa.

The crew was not able to bring the ship back to the Africans' homeland because of strong sea winds. The vessel ended up zigzagging up America’s east coast. People on other boats saw its odd movement and told people on land. The U.S government now sent their navy to catch this strange ship.

The boat was docked in New London, Connecticut since it needed supplies. There, Sengbe and the Africans were arrested for murder and piracy.

These prisoners did not know the English language and what rights they had. Connecticut people were outraged because a trial would not be fair to the Africans. So they raised money for a legal team to defend the Africans in court.

The trial began.

The defense team was made up of Connecticut natives, Roger Sherman Baldwin and Theodore Sedgwick.

They both attended Yale College. They both supported the Abolitionist Movement that wanted to end slavery.

Baldwin would later become a Connecticut State Senator and Governor. Sedgwick became Speaker of the House in Washington D.C.

The Africans were being taught English by teachers.

The defense team found them a translator so the Africans could tell their story. Sengbe told the court room about Ruiz's cruel treatment.

Baldwin and Sedgwick proved the Africans were not slaves. They found that the slave contracts on La Amistad were false.

The Hartford Court ruled in favor of the Africans. They were not slaves. They could defend themselves against Ruiz.

President Martin Van Buren appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. He believed that since the vessel and slaves were owned by Spanish citizens, Spain should deal with them.

The Amistad Defense Team needed to find someone who was well-known like Van Buren to help defend the Africans before the Court. They found John Quincy Adams, who was a former president and lawyer.

The court heard the arguments of Van Buren and the Amistad Defense Team. It ruled the Africans were free from Spain as they were not slaves.

The court also said that the government must send the Africans back to their homeland.

President Van Buren refused to pay for a ship, but the Africans got the money. They went around the country telling people about the horrible slave trade.

People gave them money. They started to become active in the abolitionist movement.

Eventually, the Africans were able to go back home.

In the 1860's slavery was ended here by Congress, because events like the Amistad Incident showed Americans how cruel slavery was.

The Amistad Trial

Appellant (those who appeal a court decision)

United States

Appellees (those against whom the appeal has been taken)

Joseph Cinque, et al.

Appellant's Claim

That the slaves aboard the Amistad should be convicted of mutiny.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant

Harry D. Gilpin, U.S. Attorney General

Chief Lawyers for Appellees

John Quincy Adams, Roger S. Baldwin

Justices for the Court

Philip P. Barbour, John Catron, John McKinley, John McLean, Joseph Story (writing for the Court), Smith Thompson, Roger Brooke Taney, James M. Wayne

Justices Dissenting

Henry Baldwin


Washington, D.C.

Date of Decision

January 1841


The Court would not convict the participants in the Amistad mutiny.


When the courts refused to convict slaves from the schooner Amistad after they killed their captors in order to free themselves, the decision was widely hailed as a victory for the cause of abolition.

By the 1830s, many countries were beginning to take steps to limit the age-old institution of slavery. Although slavery was still legal in the U.S., it was illegal to bring new slaves into the country. Further, the abolitionist movement, which sought to do away with slavery altogether, was gaining more and more support. Great Britain was strongly in favor of abolition, and had used its naval power to pressure Spain, whose colonies were dominated by slave owners, to also make it illegal to bring new slaves into any Spanish possessions.

Spanish power in the New World was declining, however, and the government in Madrid lacked the power to enforce its will. The wealthy landowners in Cuba and elsewhere throughout the Spanish New World needed slaves to work their estates, but obeying the import restriction meant waiting for the children of existing slaves to mature. To meet the growing demand for slaves, an illegal slave trade soon emerged. Slavers went to the west coast of Africa, captured healthy young black men and women, and brought them back to Cuba for sale. The colonial authorities did nothing to stop this trade. In 1839, slavers brought back a cargo of slaves from what is now Sierra Leone. Among the slaves was a young man they named Joseph Cinque.

In June of 1839, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montes purchased 49 captured Africans, including Cinque, in Havana for their estates in the Cuban town of Puerto Principe. Ruiz and Montes put the slaves aboard the schooner Amistad, intending to sail from Havana up the Cuban coast to Puerto Principe. The Spanish crew taunted the ignorant slaves, telling them wild stories, such as that their new owners intended to kill and eat them when they arrived. On the night of 1 July, Cinque led the blacks in a successful rebellion and seized control of the ship. Several members of the crew were killed during the struggle, but Ruiz and Montes survived. Cinque ordered Ruiz and Montes to take the ship back to Africa.

The Spaniards sailed east for Africa by day, but secretly reversed course by night. For nearly two months the Amistad meandered back and forth, but eventually winds and currents drove it north to the coast of the United States. On 26 August, the U.S.S. Washington spotted the Amistad off the coast of New York, seized the ship, and brought it into New London, Connecticut.

Cinque on Trial

In New London, Ruiz and Montes described the slave rebellion to the American authorities, and pressed their claim for the return of the Amistad with its cargo of slaves. Despite the illegal capture of the slaves, the Spanish government backed Ruiz's and Montes' claim. With the blessing of President Martin Van Buren's administration, District Attorney William S. Holabird charged Cinque and the other blacks with committing murder and piracy aboard the Amistad.

The trial was held in the U.S. District Court for Connecticut. The judge was district court judge Andrew T. Judson, assisted by Supreme Court Justice Smith Thompson. The abolitionists hired a team of defense lawyers to represent the blacks, comprised of Roger S. Baldwin, Joshua Leavitt, Seth Staples and the ex-president of the United States, John Quincy Adams.

The trial began on 19 November 1839. The defense lawyers asserted that the blacks had the right to free themselves from the horrible conditions of slavery. In support of their position, they introduced Dr. Richard R. Madden, who had travelled extensively in Cuba and was an expert on slave conditions:

. . . so terrible were these atrocities, so murderous the system of slavery, so transcendent the evils I witnessed, over all I have ever heard or seen of the rigour of slavery elsewhere, that at first I could hardly believe the evidence of my senses.

Further, as the testimony of Madden and various witnesses made clear, returning Cinque and the others to Cuba meant certain death at the hands of the pro-slavery colonial authorities. In addition, since the blacks had originally been captured in Africa in violation of Spanish law, the abolitionists argued that the blacks were not legally slaves and therefore were not "property" belonging to Ruiz and Montes.

Despite pressure from the Van Buren administration, which wanted to avoid diplomatic tension with Spain, on 13 January 1840 Judge Judson ruled in favor of the Africans. Although the Amistad with its goods would be returned to Ruiz and Montes, subject to salvage costs, Cinque and the others:

. . . were born free, and ever since have been and still of right are free and not slaves.

Further, because they had been illegally enslaved, the Africans were ruled to be innocent of murder and piracy since they had only acted to free themselves. The prosecution appealed Judson's decision to the Supreme Court. The abolitionists had anticipated this move, since five Supreme Court justices, including Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, were Southerners and had owned slaves. The defense relied on John Quincy Adams to present their case, banking on his prestige as much as on his legal ability.

On 22 February 1840 the Supreme Court heard both sides of the argument, and on 9 March issued its opinion. The Court upheld Judson's decision, and so the blacks were finally free. Cinque and the others were returned to Africa.

Technically, the Amistad decision did not condemn slavery. It only held that Africans who were not legally slaves could not be considered property. Still, the courts could have easily turned Cinque over to Spanish authorities or returned them to Cuba. Therefore, the case was seen as a victory for the abolitionist cause, and was a milestone in the movement's quest for the total elimination of slavery.


  1. Fill out the worksheet on the following page

  2. Write a 1-2 page speech that explains your opinion on whether Cinque should be found guilty or not (be sure to explain why). Speech should be on LOOSE LEAF and may be hand-written OR typed.

Assignment 1: Was Cinque and his men guilty or innocent? In the chart below, list the arguments for and against their innocent as stated in the documents. Then, create a bulleted list that shows, in order, what you consider to be the five most important events that were involved in the Amistad incident.

Arguments supporting “Guilty”

Arguments supporting “Innocent”

5 Most Significant Events:

Assignment 2: Using the arguments and events listed above, write a speech stating YOUR view on whether they should be found guilty or innocent. Explain your reasoning and make sure into include an introduction and conclusion. Each speech should be at least four paragraphs long. Your speeches will be shared when we return after break!

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